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Alone in the new world

This time last year I went for a very ordinary walk, unaware of the disruption, trauma and solitude that was to come. 

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In early March last year I went for a very ordinary walk. I followed a path past a line of poplars to a pocket-sized lake in the woods where I watched a territorial swan chase a Canada goose repeatedly across the water. There were new shoots of dogs’ mercury at my feet, fresh nettle leaves and low cushions of cow parsley, and that day was the first of the year in which the sun on my face offered warmth and pressure rather than a simple apprehension of light. This is a good place, I thought. I’ll come here again. Then I went home and packed a suitcase, because the next day I was flying to New York to attend a conference.

A year since that walk. A year since the crowded immigration hall at JFK, so early in the pandemic that I wasn’t particularly concerned about the coughing all around me for the two hours I stood in line. A year since I came home and fell into bed for a week with chills and shivers and bone-deep exhaustion that I thought at the time was jet lag and suspect now may not have been. And everything since. So many people gone, so many lives hollowed out, so much broken, so much loss, so much altered forever.

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Anyone who has suffered trauma or loss knows the strange way the body keeps memories in itself: anniversary reaction, they call it. Consciousness can forget the day it happened, but part of you will not, and it can spill out in any number of symptoms, some physical, some not. So today I went on the same walk, without any thought of why. A bright day, with high, pearly cloud, clay paths sticky with yesterday’s rain. Hazel catkins, tufts of rabbit fur on the path, a pair of stock doves clattering from a pedunculate oak. I wore the same wellingtons, carried the same binoculars, but it wasn’t until I saw the swan chasing a goose across the lake again that I realised why I’d come. I had the strangest apprehension, then, as if my walk last year in the last of the old world, and my walk right now in the new, had folded in on themselves, existed at precisely the same time. And that was when my walk turned into a far more sobering thing.

I stopped looking for spring sameness, ignored the points of light on the blackthorns, the pewter ladders of pussy willows, and started thinking about all the things that have changed. Some have been huge and sour – the terrible loss of life, the misery and darkness the pandemic has caused, the horror it continues to incur. But some of the changes have not been big. Some have been small, and sharp, and personal – and one of those is what it feels like now, to walk alone in spring.

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When I was a child I was taken on trips to Winkworth Arboretum in Surrey to see the bluebells that bloomed there each spring. They were spectacular floods of coloured mist, their scent on wet days almost overwhelming. They were beloved of many, many people, so the car park was always packed, the paths crammed with families who had come there to enjoy the show. I blush to remember this, but I was always furious about having to share. It felt an affront that there were so many other people – I remember squinting, defocusing my eyes to try to erase humans from the scene and leave only flowers. I was sure, back then, that when it came to nature, crowds were wrong. You were supposed to see it alone.

There were practical reasons to feel this way. Solitude and silence are useful natural-historical tactics. Even then I spent a lot of my time on my own searching for wild creatures, and I knew how impossible it was to get close to them if I was with grown-ups, particularly if they were talking. But there was more to what I felt; these intuitions weren’t detached from social history. They were the legacy of long-held views about who has the right to experience nature, and how. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, “vulgar” working-class visitors to the countryside were castigated for coming in crowds, for being too loud, for playing gramophones, for not understanding the significance of what was around them. As the cultural geographer David Matless has put it, “if one enjoyed… loud music and saucy seaside humour, one could not and would not want to connect spiritually to a hill”.

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I didn’t know about any of that back then. But I know it now. And trudging around the pond on my own I thought of what it would be like to stand in a bluebell wood with a hundred, two hundred other people, and felt a wrench of desperate hope that this might again be possible. One of the things this year has done is light my heart with the knowledge of how much we need us. And for me this has weakened the lure of the solitary experience of nature, let a little air out of its tyres.

As I turned back to the car I disturbed a song thrush bathing in a puddle behind a heap of dry and wintry briars. It flew up to an elder bush and shook itself. Through my binoculars I saw its dark eye, its tigerish head, its spotted chest, damp and draggled in the sun. It looked new-cast by the spring. Before the pandemic I’d have treasured this moment handed to me by the world precisely because no one else had seen it. It would have been a little jewel of an encounter, special because I’d seen it, a wordless thing that no one else would ever see or know. But now? Now I was frustrated, because there was such newness in it, such momentary, absolute perfection, and no one was there to share it with me. 

This article appears in the 24 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special